The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Translated by Fr Thomas Duncan
From Migne’s Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 65



When the holy Abba Anthony was sitting in the desert, he fell into acedia and very many darkening thoughts. He said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved, but the thoughts won’t allow me; what shall I do in my affliction? How will I be saved?” And a little while later, when he got up to go outside, Anthony saw someone like himself, sitting down and working, and then standing up from work and offering prayers, and again sitting down and weaving rope, then again standing up to pray. It was an angel of the Lord, sent for the correction and assurance of Anthony. He heard the angel saying, “do this and you will be saved.” He got much joy and courage from hearing this, and by doing this he was saved.

The same Abba Anthony, while gazing intently at the depth of God’s judgements, asked, “Lord, how is it that some die young while some are exceedingly old? And wherefore do some have to toil while others are rich? And how come the unrighteous are rich while the righteous must toil?” There came a voice to him saying, “Anthony, attend to yourself. For these things are the judgements of God and are not profitable for you to know.

Someone questioned Abba Anthony, saying, “what must one observe that he might be well pleasing to God?” The old man responded, saying, “keep that which I enjoin on you: wherever you go, hold God before your eyes always; and whatever you do, hold to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; and in whichever place you settle, do not be hasty to move. Observe these three things and you shall be saved.”

Abba Anthony said to Abba Poeman, “this is the great work of man: that he should blame himself and throw himself before God and expect temptation until the last breath.”

He said, “no one untempted is able to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” He went on, “for without temptations, no one is saved.”

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “what shall I do?” The old man said to him, “do not have confidence in your righteousness, do not regret upon past matters, and be master over your tongue and belly.”

Abba Anthony said, “I saw all the snares of the enemy being spread out upon the earth. And groaning, I said, ‘what can get past these things?’ And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘humility’.”  

Again, he said, “there are some who are wearing out their own bodies in asceticism, but without having discernment, and have become far from God.”

Again, he said, “from the neighbour is life and death. For if we should gain a brother, we are gaining God, but if we should cause a brother to stumble, we are sinning against Christ.”

Again, he said, “just as fish die when they remain too long out of water, in the same way do monks, when they loiter outside the cell, or tarry in worldly things, let go of the tension of interior stillness. It is necessary, therefore, just like fish going into the sea, for us to hurry on into the cell lest ever we linger outside and be made to forget custody of the interior.”

Again, he said, “the one who sits in the desert and keeps silence is free from three battles:  hearing, speech, and seeing. He has only one, that of sexual immorality.” 

Some brothers came over to Abba Anthony to report to him the apparitions they saw, and to learn from him whether they be genuine, or from the demons. Now, they had a donkey, but it died on the way. So, as they came to the old man, he got in first and asked them, “how did the little donkey die on the way?” They said to him, “from where did you come to know this, Abba?” He said to them, “the demons showed me.” And they said to him, “for this reason we came to question you, lest perhaps we be let astray, for we are seeing apparitions and often they come true.” Thus, the old man fully convinced them from the example of the donkey, that they were from the demons.

Someone was hunting wild animals in the desert, and he saw Abba Anthony joking with the brothers. Wanting to convince him that one should meet the brothers on their level, the old man said to him, “put an arrow into your bow and stretch it.” And he did so. He said to him, “stretch it again.” And he stretched it. Again, he insisted, “stretch it.” The hunter said to him, “if I stretch it beyond measure, the bow will break.” The old man said to him, “so too with the work of God; if we stretch the brothers beyond their limit, they will quickly break to pieces. Therefore, it is necessary to come down to meet the brothers on their level.” The hunter was pierced upon hearing these things and went away greatly helped by the old man. The brothers too went away to their place edified.

Abba Anthony heard about a young monk who performed a miracle on the road: When he had seen some old men travelling and exhausted on the road, he commanded wild asses to come and carry the old men until they should reach Anthony. Then the old men reported these things to Anthony. He said to them, “this monk is like a ship full of good things, but I do not know if he will arrive at the harbour.” After some time, Abba Anthony suddenly began to weep and tear at his hair and wail. His disciples said to him, “why are you crying, Abba?” And the old man said, “a great pillar of the Church just fell (he was speaking about the young monk). But go to him”, he said, “and see what has happened.” So the disciples departed and found the monk sitting on a matt, lamenting the sin which he committed. Seeing the disciples of the old man, he said, “speak to the old man that he might plead with God to grant me only ten days, and I hope to give a defence.” But within five days he met his end. 

A monk was commended by the brothers to Abba Anthony. So, when he approached him, he tested whether he could bear dishonour. And finding that he could not bear it, he said to him, “you are like a village adorned on the outside but plundered by brigands on the inside.” 

A brother said to Abba Anthony, “pray for me.” The old man said to him, “Neither shall I have mercy on you, nor shall God, unless you yourself strive earnestly and entreat God.”

One day some old men came down to Abba Anthony, and Abba Joseph was with them. Wanting to test them, the old man put forward a saying from the Scriptures and began to question the youngest ones what this saying meant. And each one answered according to his own ability. To each the old man said, “you are not getting it.” After all of them, he said to Abba Joseph, “you, how do you explain this saying?” He answered, “I do not know.” Then Abba Anthony said, “indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he said, ‘I do not know.’”

Some brothers came down to Abba Anthony from Scetis, and when they were getting into a boat to go to him, they found an old man who also wanted to go there. But the brothers did not know him. And while sitting in the boat they kept speaking about the words of the Fathers, the Scriptures and again about their manual labour. But the old man kept silent. And when they came upon the shore, the old man was found to be going to Abba Anthony too. But as they came towards him, he said to them, “this old man you found is good company.” And he said also to the old man, “you found good brothers with you, Abba.” The old man said, “indeed they are good, but their courtyard has no door so whoever wishes enters the stall and unties the ass.” He said this because they said whatever came into their mouths.

Some brothers came down to Abba Anthony, and they said to him, “tell us a word, how might we be saved?” The old man said to them, “have you heard the Scripture? It holds well enough for you.” But they said, “we wish to hear from you also, Father.” The old man said to them, “the Gospel says: ‘if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also.” They said to him, “we are not able to do this.” The old man said to them, if you are not able to turn the other also, at least endure the one.” They said to him, “neither can we do this.” The old man said, “if you cannot do this either, do not retaliate.” But they said, “nor can we do this.”  The old man then said to his disciple, “make a little porridge for them, for they are sick. If you can’t do this, and you don’t want that, what shall I do for you? You need prayers.”

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